I recently saw a poster of Brigitte Bardot in the 1957 movie Et Dieu Créa La Femme (And God Created Woman). Besides presenting la Bardot, the film launched the town of St Tropez, which had not until then made the impact on tourists that Cannes had already for a century.
I was surprised to see that, even today, sixty years on, St Tropez has fewer than 6,000 inhabitants and has never been connected to SNCF railways. Clearly part of its exclusivity was that it was hard to reach.
I came then to wonder who this saint was. ‘Tropez’ is hardly a common name. He may have been a Roman, with a name given as ‘Caius Silvius Torpetius’, a martyr executed, it is said, by Nero on 29 April AD68. His martyrdom is connected with the port of Pisa. Pisa is held to be an Etruscan city, since it contains an Etruscan mausoleum, so ‘Caius’ would be Gaius, most common Roman praenomen; Etruscan has no letter G. Silvius, the nomen of the Gens Silvia, tells us little either. This was the name of the royal family of Alba Longa, but not one in existence in later times.
Torpetius is a useless cognomen, as it means nothing in Latin. I speculate that is might be a local pronunciation in P Italic of the same word which in Latin is Torquatus. This would tie us in to some very important people. Two shared the name Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus. The elder, uncle to the younger, was praetor in AD48, but committed suicide on 1 January 49, having been accused by Claudius of incest with his sister. The nephew, descended from Augustus, was exiled as soon as Nero acceded to the throne and sent ‘to a country town’ where he died. Could this be Portus Pisanum?
The saint was supposedly either a gladiator or a member of the emperor’s personal guard. Well, it’s highly unlikely that he would be both a gladiator and have the Roman tria nomina. Roman citizens were forbidden to be gladiators and gladiators were denied the right ever to become Roman citizens. So we can scotch that.
It’s also highly unlikely that at that time an ordinary soldier in the imperial bodyguard would be a Roman citizen, not while serving anyway. The imperial bodyguard mostly comprised Germans. However, senior officers of the bodyguard would probably be equites, another relationship mentioned by saints’ lives of Torpetius.
|Orthodox Christian Image of St Torpetius|
The saint was beheaded and then placed in a boat with a cock and a dog, and sent down the River Arno to the sea, where, mirabile dictu, it floated all the way to southern Gaul. There are also claims that it drifted to Spain and even Portugal.
The boat with a cock and a dog, which, according to the miracula, didn’t touch the saint’s body but instead ran off once the boat landed in Gaul and had villages named after them, does strongly resemble the Roman punishment of poena cullei, in which the condemned man, often a parricide, was placed into a leather bag with snakes, a cock and a dog, who would injure him in their panic as all floated down the river (usually the Tiber) to certain death. The punishment was so peculiar that it was dreaded, and while it dated back to the Republic, it was used heavily by Claudius and Nero, was revived by Constantine and was still used in the era of Justinian.
So I suggest that St Tropez, Tropes in Provençal and Silvius Torpetius in local Latin, may have been Silanus Torquatus, killed by Nero for reasons unconnected to any supposed connection to early Christianity. Decapitation was not a normal Roman punishment, but one used by the Gauls (and Britons) to get rid of their political enemies. In the Christian era, pagan statue heads, like that of Apollo at Uley in Gloucestershire, might be buried as a damnatio memoriae.
If the fishermen of the unnamed Gaulish village had received a headless body in a boat, even with a cock and a dog, they would not have known it was a saint, would they? Tropez has no in vivo miracles attached to him. His vita, the Passio Sancti Torpetii, dates from the ninth century, which takes us very much into the Carolingian period, when this part of France was occupied by Arab Muslims. Subverting their tolerant regime by instigating and promoting a saint’s cult smack in the middle would be a typical piece of cultural theatre for the middle ages.
The priests who invented the saint also created a holy woman called Celerina, who had had a vision of the arrival of St Tropez, and who retrieved his body and dealt with it. Assuming this to be a Christian figure, it would be anachronistic, since there were almost certainly no Christians in Gaul at that time. Her name is a female version of Celerinus, considered a saint and ‘martyred’ by the emperor Decius at Carthage in AD250. He died of natural causes so he ought to be a confessor rather than a martyr, in that he was willing to be martyred, but wasn’t. He did have an aunt called Clerina who was a martyr, so maybe she is the Celerina in question, a mere 200 years later. Again, the Church would look for kudos for France based on this early martyrdom and an early saint. Many Gaulish female saints are Christianised versions of pagan goddesses anyway.
One source of the myth may have arrived from Spain. Liutprand of Cremona, the notoriously bad-tempered priest who worked for the Emperor Otto I and who rubbished Byzantium, recorded that Muslim converts called Muwallad, Latin speakers, landed at St Tropez (Heraclea was its ancient name) in 889 and rebuilt Fraxinet, anciently Fraxinetum, making it an important settlement. They were expelled by the forces of Count William, Margrave of Provence, because they had kidnapped the Abbot of Cluny. Losing the Battle of Tourtour in AD973, the Andalusis were killed or enslaved, and this marked the point at which all local and immigrant Muslims left that area of Francia.
Inventing a major saint, one with a Roman pedigree and international appreciation, is exactly what rulers did to win control of territories.
|Les Bravades de St-Topez, Catholic Ritual in France|
If Torquatus is the Torpetius/ Tropez of the martyrologies, he was unlucky to die on 29 April, in that Nero committed suicide on 9 June AD68, just a few weeks later. Maybe he was merely exiled by Nero, since there is little to be gained in exiling someone just to kill them. If you’re emperor, you just kill them. If, as is suggested, Torquatus was a relative, Nero exiled him, and it was Galba who had him killed. By 29 April, the army revolt against Nero was in full spate. The emperor was too busy trying to persuade his bodyguards not to run away and leave him to his fate (described by Tacitus Histories and Suetonius Twelve Caesars) to worry about early Christians (the claim that Nero executed SS Peter and Paul dates to Lactantius On the Death of the Persecutors (Chapter 2) in the early fourth century; earlier claims had been that they were executed during his reign, but not at his command).
|Rococo image of the martyrdom of St Tropez|
In summary, I consider that Saint Tropez was invented out of scraps of ancient texts about Silanus Torquatus, with a dash of Lactantius and a pinch of grand guignol for the counts of Provence, to use as a justification to expell the hard-working and popular Muslims from the Fraxinet-Heraclea.
We’ve come a long way from Brigitte Bardot, but her life has at least been less fictionalised than St Tropez himself.